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The Story Of Kennett
by Bayard Taylor
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This new attempt was not more successful, so far as its main object was concerned, but it actually stumbled upon Sandy Flash's trail, and only failed by giving tongue too soon and following too impetuously. Gilbert and his men had a tantalizing impression (which later intelligence proved to have been correct) that the robber was somewhere near them,—buried in the depths of the very wood they were approaching, dodging behind the next barn as it came into view, or hidden under dead leaves in some rain-washed gulley. Had they but known, one gloomy afternoon in late December, that they were riding under the cedar-tree in whose close, cloudy foliage he was coiled, just above their heads! Had they but guessed who the deaf old woman was, with her face muffled from the cold, and six cuts of blue yarn in her basket! But detection had not then become a science, and they were far from suspecting the extent of Sandy Flash's devices and disguises.

Many of the volunteers finally grew tired of the fruitless chase, and returned home; others could only spare a few days from their winter labors; but Gilbert Potter, with three or four faithful and courageous young fellows,—one of whom was Mark Deane,—returned again and again to the search, and not until the end of December did he confess himself baffled. By this time all traces of the highwayman were again lost; he seemed to have disappeared from the country.

"I believe Pratt's right," said Mark, as the two issued from the Marlborough woods, on their return to Kennett Square. "Chester County is too hot to hold him."

"Perhaps so," Gilbert answered, with a gloomy face. He was more keenly disappointed at the failure than he would then confess, even to Mark. The outrage committed upon him was still unavenged, and thus his loss, to his proud, sensitive nature, carried a certain shame with it. Moreover, the loss itself must speedily be replaced. He had half flattered himself with the hope of capturing not only Sandy Flash, but his plunder; it was hard to forget that, for a day or two, he had been independent,—hard to stoop again to be a borrower and a debtor!

"What are the county authorities good for?" Mark exclaimed. "Between you and me, the Sheriff's a reg'lar puddin'-head. I wish you was in his place."

"If Sandy is safe in Jersey, or down on the Eastern Shore, that would do no good. It isn't enough that he leaves us alone, from this time on; he has a heavy back-score to settle."

"Come to think on it, Gilbert," Mark continued, "isn't it rather queer that you and him should be thrown together in such ways? There was Barton's fox-chase last spring; then your shootin' at other, at the Square; and then the robbery on the road. It seems to me as if he picked you out to follow you, and yet I don't know why."

Gilbert started. Mark's words reawakened the dark, incredible suspicion which Martha Deane had removed. Again he declared to himself that he would not entertain the thought, but he could not reject the evidence that there was something more than accident in all these encounters. If any one besides Sandy Flash were responsible for the last meeting, it must be Alfred Barton. The latter, therefore, owed him an explanation, and he would demand it.

When they reached the top of the "big hill" north of the Fairthorn farm-house, whence they looked eastward down the sloping corn-field which had been the scene of the husking-frolic, Mark turned to Gilbert with an honest blush all over his face, and said,—

"I don't see why you shouldn't know it, Gilbert. I'm sure Sally wouldn't care; you're almost like a brother to her."

"What?" Gilbert asked, yet with a quick suspicion of the coming intelligence.

"Oh, I guess you know, well enough, old fellow. I asked her that night, and it's all right between us. What do you say to it, now?"

"Mark, I'm glad of it; I wish you joy, with all my heart!" Gilbert stretched out his hand, and as he turned and looked squarely into Mark's half-bashful yet wholly happy face, he remembered Martha's words, at their last interview.

"You are like a brother to me, Mark," he said, "and you shall have my secret. What would you say if I had done the same thing?"

"No?" Mark exclaimed; "who?"

"Guess!"

"Not—not Martha?"

Gilbert smiled.

"By the Lord! It's the best day's work you've ever done! Gi' me y'r hand ag'in; we'll stand by each other faster than ever, now!"

When they stopped at Fairthorn's, the significant pressure of Gilbert's hand brought a blush into Sally's cheek; but when Mark met Martha with his tell-tale face, she answered with a proud and tender smile.

Gilbert's first business, after his return, was to have a consultation with Miss Betsy Lavender, who alone knew of the suspicions attaching to Alfred Barton. The spinster had, in the mean time, made the matter the subject of profound and somewhat painful cogitation. She had ransacked her richly stored memory of persons and events, until her brain was like a drawer of tumbled clothes; had spent hours in laborious mental research, becoming so absorbed that she sometimes gave crooked answers when spoken to, and was haunted with a terrible dread of having thought aloud; and had questioned the oldest gossips right and left, coming as near the hidden subject as she dared. When they met, she communicated the result to Gilbert in this wise:

"'T a'n't agreeable for a body to allow they're flummuxed, but if I a'n't, this time, I'm mighty near onto it. It's like lookin' for a set o' buttons that'll match, in a box full o' tail-ends o' things. This'n 'd do, and that'n 'd do; but you can't put this'n and that'n together; and here's got to be square work, everything fittin' tight and hangin' plumb, or it'll be throwed back onto your hands, and all to be done over ag'in. I dunno when I've done so much head-work and to no purpose, follerin' here and guessin' there, and nosin' into everything that's past and gone; and so my opinion is, whether you like it or not, but never mind, all the same, I can't do no more than give it, that we'd better drop what's past and gone, and look a little more into these present times!"

"Well, Betsy," said Gilbert, with a stern, determined face, "this is what I shall do. I am satisfied that Barton is connected, in some way, with Sandy Flash. What it is, or whether the knowledge will help us, I can't guess; but I shall force Barton to tell me!"

"To tell me. That might do, as far as it goes," she remarked, after a moment's reflection. "It won't be easy; you'll have to threaten as well as coax, but I guess you can git it out of him in the long run, and maybe I can help you here, two bein' better than one, if one is but a sheep's-head."

"I don't see, Betsy, that I need to call on you."

"This way, Gilbert. It's a strong p'int o' law, I've heerd tell, not that I know much o' law, Goodness knows, nor ever want to, but never mind, it's a strong p'int when there's two witnesses to a thing,—one to clinch what the t'other drives in; and you must have a show o' law to work on Alf. Barton, or I'm much mistaken!"

Gilbert reflected a moment. "It can do no harm," he then said; "can you go with me, now?"

"Now's the time! If we only git the light of a farden-candle out o' him, it'll do me a mortal heap o' good; for with all this rakin' and scrapin' for nothin', I'm like a heart pantin' after the water-brooks, though a mouth would be more like it, to my thinkin', when a body's so awful dry as that comes to!"

The two thereupon took the foot-path down through the frozen fields and the dreary timber of the creek-side, to the Barton farm-house. As they approached the barn, they saw Alfred Barton sitting on a pile of straw and watching Giles, who was threshing wheat. He seemed a little surprised at their appearance; but as Gilbert and he had not met since their interview in the corn-field before the former's departure for Chester, he had no special cause for embarrassment.

"Come into the house," he said, leading the way.

"No," Gilbert answered, "I came here to speak with you privately. Will you walk down the lane?"

"No objection, of course," said Barton, looking from Gilbert to Miss Lavender, with a mixture of curiosity and uneasiness. "Good news, I hope; got hold of Sandy's tracks, at last?"

"One of them."

"Ah, you don't say so! Where?"

"Here!"

Gilbert stopped and faced Barton. They were below the barn, and out of Giles's hearing.

"Barton," he resumed, "you know what interest I have in the arrest of that man, and you won't deny my right to demand of you an account of your dealings with him. When did you first make his acquaintance?"

"I've told you that, already; the matter has been fully talked over between us," Barton answered, in a petulant tone.

"It has not been fully talked over. I require to know, first of all, precisely when, and under what circumstances, you and Sandy Flash came together. There is more to come, so let us begin at the beginning."

"Damme, Gilbert, you were there, and saw as much as I did. How could I know who the cursed black-whiskered fellow was?"

"But you found it out," Gilbert persisted, "and the manner of your finding it out must be explained."

Barton assumed a bold, insolent manner. "I don't see as that follows," he said. "It has nothing in the world to do with his robbery of you; and as for Sandy Flash, I wish to the Lord you'd get hold of him, yourself, instead of trying to make me accountable for his comings and goings!"

"He's tryin' to fly off the handle," Miss Lavender remarked. "I'd drop that part o' the business a bit, if I was you, and come to the t'other proof."

"What the devil have you to do here?" asked Barton.

"Miss Betsy is here because I asked her," Gilbert said. "Because all that passes between us may have to be repeated in a court of justice, and two witnesses are better than one!"

He took advantage of the shock which these words produced upon Barton, and repeated to him the highwayman's declarations, with the inference they might bear if not satisfactorily explained. "I kept my promise," he added, "and said nothing to any living soul of your request that I should carry money for you to Chester. Sandy Flash's information, therefore, must have come, either directly or indirectly, from you."

Barton had listened with open mouth and amazed eyes.

"Why, the man is a devil!" he cried. "I, neither, never said a word of the matter to any living soul!"

"Did you really send any money?" Gilbert asked.

"That I did! I got it of Joel Ferris, and it happened he was bound for Chester, the very next day, on his own business; and so, instead of turning it over to me, he just paid it there, according to my directions. You'll understand, this is between ourselves?"

He darted a sharp, suspicious glance at Miss Betsy Lavender, who gravely nodded her head.

"The difficulty is not yet explained," said Gilbert, "and perhaps you'll now not deny my right to know something more of your first acquaintance with Sandy Flash?"

"Have it then!" Barton exclaimed, desperately—"and much good may it do you! I thought his name was Fortune, as much as you did, till nine o'clock that night, when he put a pistol to my breast in the woods! If you think I'm colloguing with him, why did he rob me under threat of murder,—money, watch, and everything?"

"Ah-ha!" said Miss Lavender, "and so that's the way your watch has been gittin' mended all this while? Mainspring broke, as I've heerd say; well, I don't wonder! Gilbert, I guess this much is true. Alf. Barton'd never live so long without that watch, and that half-peck o' seals, if he could help it!"

"This, too, may as well be kept to ourselves," Barton suggested. "It isn't agreeable to a man to have it known that he's been so taken in as I was, and that's just the reason why I kept it to myself; and, of course, I shouldn't like it to get around."

Gilbert could do no less than accept this part of the story, and it rendered his later surmises untenable. But the solution which he sought was as far off as ever.

"Barton," he said, after a long pause, "will you do your best to help me in finding out how Sandy Flash got the knowledge?"

"Only show me a way! The best would be to catch him and get it from his own mouth."

He looked so earnest, so eager, and—as far as the traces of cunning in his face would permit—so honest, that Gilbert yielded to a sudden impulse, and said,—

"I believe you, Barton. I've done you wrong in my thoughts,—not willingly, for I don't want to think badly of you or any one else,—but because circumstances seemed to drive me to it. It would have been better if you had told me of your robbery at the start."

"You're right there, Gilbert! I believe I was an outspoken fellow enough, when I was young, and all the better for it, but the old man's driven me into a curst way of keeping dark about everything, and so I go on heaping up trouble for myself."

"Trouble for myself, Alf. Barton," said Miss Lavender, "that's the truest word you've said this many a day. Murder will out, you know, and so will robbery, and so will—other things. More o' your doin's is known, not that they're agreeabler, but on the contrary, quite the reverse, and as full need to be explained, though it don't seem to matter much, yet it may, who can tell? And now look here, Gilbert; my crow is to be picked, and you've seen the color of it, but never mind, all the same, since Martha's told the Doctor, it can't make much difference to you. And this is all between ourselves, you understand?"

The last words were addressed to Barton, with a comical, unconscious imitation of his own manner. He guessed something of what was coming, though not the whole of it, and again became visibly uneasy; but he stammered out,—"Yes; oh, yes! of course."

Gilbert could form a tolerably correct idea of the shape and size of Miss Lavender's crow. He did not feel sure that this was the proper time to have it picked, or even that it should be picked at all; but he imagined that Miss Lavender had either consulted Martha Deane, or that she had wise reasons of her own for speaking. He therefore remained silent.

"First and foremost," she resumed, "I'll tell you, Alf. Barton, what we know o' your doin's, and then it's for you to judge whether we'll know any more. Well, you've been tryin' to git Martha Deane for a wife, without wantin' her in your heart, but rather the contrary, though it seems queer enough when a body comes to think of it, but never mind; and your father's druv you to it; and you were of a cold shiver for fear she'd take you, and yet you want to let on it a'n't settled betwixt and between you—oh, you needn't chaw your lips and look yaller about the jaws, it's the Lord's truth; and now answer me this, what do you mean? and maybe you'll say what right have I got to ask, but never mind, all the same, if I haven't, Gilbert Potter has, for it's him that Martha Deane has promised to take for a husband!"

It was a day of surprises for Barton. In his astonishment at the last announcement, he took refuge from the horror of Miss Lavender's first revelations. One thing was settled,—all the fruits of his painful and laborious plotting were scattered to the winds. Denial was of no use, but neither could an honest explanation, even if he should force himself to give it, be of any possible service.

"Gilbert," he asked, "is this true?—about you, I mean."

"Martha Deane and I are engaged, and were already at the time when you addressed her," Gilbert answered.

"Good heavens! I hadn't the slightest suspicion of it. Well—I don't begrudge you your luck, and of course I'll draw back, and never say another word, now or ever."

"You wouldn't ha' been comfortable with Martha Deane, anyhow," Miss Lavender grimly remarked. "'T isn't good to hitch a colt-horse and an old spavined critter in one team. But that's neither here nor there; you ha'n't told us why you made up to her for a purpose, and kep' on pretendin' she didn't know her own mind."

"I've promised Gilbert that I won't interfere, and that's enough," said Barton, doggedly.

Miss Lavender was foiled for a moment, but she presently returned to the attack. "I dunno as it's enough, after what's gone before," she said. "Couldn't you go a step furder, and lend Gilbert a helpin' hand, whenever and whatever?"

"Betsy!" Gilbert exclaimed.

"Let me alone, lad! I don't speak in Gilbert's name, nor yet in Martha's; only out o' my own mind. I don't ask you to do anything, but I want to know how it stands with your willin'ness."

"I've offered, more than once, to do him a good turn, if I could; but I guess my help wouldn't be welcome," Barton answered. The sting of the suspicion rankled in his mind, and Gilbert's evident aversion sorely wounded his vanity.

"Wouldn't be welcome. Then I'll only say this; maybe I've got it in my power, and 't isn't sayin' much, for the mouse gnawed the mashes o' the lion's net, to help you to what you're after, bein' as it isn't Martha, and can't be her money. S'pose I did it o' my own accord, leavin' you to feel beholden to me, or not, after all's said and done?"

But Alfred Barton was proof against even this assault. He was too dejected to enter, at once, into a new plot, the issue of which would probably be as fruitless as the others. He had already accepted a sufficiency of shame, for one day. This last confession, if made, would place his character in a still grosser and meaner light; while, if withheld, the unexplained motive might be presented as a partial justification of his course. He had been surprised into damaging admissions; but here he would take a firm stand.

"You're right so far, Betsy," he said, "that I had a reason—a good reason, it seemed to me, but I may be mistaken—for what I did. It concerns no one under Heaven but my own self; and though I don't doubt your willingness to do me a good turn, it would make no difference—you couldn't help one bit. I've given the thing up, and so let it be!"

There was nothing more to be said, and the two cross-examiners took their departure. As they descended to the creek, Miss Lavender remarked, as if to herself,—

"No use—it can't be screwed out of him! So there's one cur'osity the less; not that I'm glad of it, for not knowin' worries more than knowin', whatsoever and whosoever. And I dunno as I think any the wuss of him for shuttin' his teeth so tight onto it."

Alfred Barton waited until the two had disappeared behind the timber in the bottom. Then he slowly followed, stealing across the fields and around the stables, to the back-door of the Unicorn bar-room. It was noticed that, although he drank a good deal that afternoon, his ill-humor was not, as usual, diminished thereby.



CHAPTER XXIV.

DEB. SMITH TAKES A RESOLUTION.

It was a raw, overcast evening in the early part of January. Away to the west there was a brownish glimmer in the dark-gray sky, denoting sunset, and from that point there came barely sufficient light to disclose the prominent features of a wild, dreary, uneven landscape.

The foreground was a rugged clearing in the forest, just where the crest of a high hill began to slope rapidly down to the Brandywine. The dark meadows, dotted with irregular lakes of ice, and long, dirty drifts of unmelted snow, but not the stream itself, could be seen. Across the narrow valley rose a cape, or foreland, of the hills beyond, timbered nearly to the top, and falling, on either side, into deep lateral glens,—those warm nooks which the first settlers loved to choose, both from their snug aspect of shelter, and from the cold, sparkling springs of water which every one of them held in its lap. Back of the summits of all the hills stretched a rich, rolling upland, cleared and mapped into spacious fields, but showing everywhere an edge of dark, wintry woods against the darkening sky.

In the midst of this clearing stood a rough cabin, or rather half-cabin, of logs; for the back of it was formed by a ledge of slaty rocks, some ten or twelve feet in height, which here cropped out of the hill-side. The raw clay with which the crevices between the logs had been stopped, had fallen out in many places; the roof of long strips of peeled bark was shrivelled by wind and sun, and held in its place by stones and heavy branches of trees, and a square tower of plastered sticks in one corner very imperfectly suggested a chimney. There was no inclosed patch of vegetable-ground near, no stable, improvised of corn-shocks, for the shelter of cow or pig, and the habitation seemed not only to be untenanted, but to have been forsaken years before.

Yet a thin, cautious thread of smoke stole above the rocks, and just as the starless dusk began to deepen into night, a step was heard, slowly climbing upward through the rustling leaves and snapping sticks of the forest. A woman's figure, wearily scaling the hill under a load which almost concealed the upper part of her body, for it consisted of a huge wallet, a rattling collection of articles tied in a blanket, and two or three bundles slung over her shoulders with a rope. When at last, panting from the strain, she stood beside the cabin, she shook herself, and the articles, with the exception of the wallet, tumbled to the ground. The latter she set down carefully, thrust her arm into one of the ends and drew forth a heavy jug, which she raised to her mouth. The wind was rising, but its voice among the trees was dull and muffled; now and then a flake of snow dropped out of the gloom, as if some cowardly, insulting creature of the air were spitting at the world under cover of the night.

"It's likely to be a good night," the woman muttered, "and he'll be on the way by this time. I must put things to rights."

She entered the cabin by a narrow door in the southern end. Her first care was to rekindle the smouldering fire from a store of boughs and dry brushwood piled in one corner. When a little flame leaped up from the ashes, it revealed an interior bare and dismal enough, yet very cheery in contrast with the threatening weather outside. The walls were naked logs and rock, the floor of irregular flat stones, and no furniture remained except some part of a cupboard or dresser, near the chimney. Two or three short saw-cuts of logs formed as many seats, and the only sign of a bed was a mass of dry leaves, upon which a blanket had been thrown, in a hollow under the overhanging base of the rock.

Untying the blanket, the woman drew forth three or four rude cooking utensils, some dried beef and smoked sausages, and two huge round loaves of bread, and arranged them upon the one or two remaining shelves of the dresser. Then she seated herself in front of the fire, staring into the crackling blaze, which she mechanically fed from time to time, muttering brokenly to herself in the manner of one accustomed to be much alone.

"It was a mean thing, after what I'd said,—my word used to be wuth somethin', but times seems to ha' changed. If they have, why shouldn't I change with 'em, as well's anybody else? Well, why need it matter? I've got a bad name.... No, that'll never do! Stick to what you're about, or you'll be wuthlesser, even, than they says you are!"

She shook her hard fist, and took another pull at the jug.

"It's well I laid in a good lot o' that," she said. "No better company for a lonesome night, and it'll stop his cussin', I reckon, anyhow. Eh? What's that?"

From the wood came a short, quick yelp, as from some stray dog. She rose, slipped out the door, and peered into the darkness, which was full of gathering snow. After listening a moment, she gave a low whistle. It was not answered, but a stealthy step presently approached, and a form, dividing itself from the gloom, stood at her side.

"All right, Deb?"

"Right as I can make it. I've got meat and drink, and I come straight from the Turk's Head, and Jim says the Sheriff's gone back to Chester, and there's been nobody out these three days. Come in and take bite and sup, and then tell me everything."

They entered the cabin. The door was carefully barred, and then Sandy Flash, throwing off a heavy overcoat, such as the drovers were accustomed to wear, sat down by the fire. His face was redder than its wont, from cold and exposure, and all its keen, fierce lines were sharp and hard. As he warmed his feet and hands at the blaze, and watched Deb. Smith while she set the meat upon the coals, and cut the bread with a heavy hunting-knife, the wary, defiant look of a hunted animal gradually relaxed, and he said,—

"Faith, Deb., this is better than hidin' in the frost. I believe I'd ha' froze last night, if I hadn't got down beside an ox for a couple o' hours. It's a dog's life they've led me, and I've had just about enough of it."

"Then why not give it up, Sandy, for good and all? I'll go out with you to the Backwoods, after—after things is settled."

"And let 'em brag they frightened me away!" he exclaimed, with an oath. "Not by a long shot, Deb. I owe 'em a score for this last chase—I'll make the rich men o' Chester County shake in their shoes, and the officers o' the law, and the Volunteers, damme! before I've done with 'em. When I go away for good, I'll leave somethin' behind me for them to remember me by!"

"Well, never mind; eat a bit—the meat's ready, and see here, Sandy! I carried this all the way."

He seized the jug and took a long draught. "You're a good 'un, Deb.," he said. "A man isn't half a man when his belly's cold and empty."

He fell to, and ate long and ravenously. Warmed at last, both by fire and fare, and still more by his frequent potations, he commenced the story of his disguises and escapes, laughing at times with boisterous self-admiration, swearing brutally and bitterly at others, over the relentless energy with which he had been pursued. Deb. Smith listened with eager interest, slapping him upon the back with a force of approval which would have felled an ordinary man, but which Sandy Flash cheerfully accepted as a caress.

"You see," he said at the close, "after I sneaked between Potter's troop and the Sheriff's, and got down into the lower corner o' the county, I managed to jump aboard a grain-sloop bound for Newport, but they were froze in at the mouth o' Christeen; so I went ashore, dodged around Wilmington, (where I'm rather too well known,) and come up Whitely Creek as a drover from Mar'land. But from Grove up to here, I've had to look out mighty sharp, takin' nigh onto two days for what I could go straight through in half a day."

"Well, I guess you're safe here, Sandy," she said; "they'll never think o' lookin' for you twice't in the same place. Why didn't you send word for me before? You've kep' me a mortal long time a-waitin', and down on the Woodrow farm would ha' done as well as here."

"It's a little too near that Potter. He'd smell me out as quick as if I was a skunk to windward of him. Besides, it's time I was pitchin' on a few new holes; we must talk it over together, Deb."

He lifted the jug again to his mouth. Deb. Smith, although she had kept nearly even pace with him, was not so sensible to the potency of the liquor, and was watching for the proper degree of mellowness, in order to broach the subject over which she had been secretly brooding since his arrival.

"First of all, Sandy," she now said, "I want to talk to you about Gilbert Potter. The man's my friend, and I thought you cared enough about me to let my friends alone."

"So I do, Deb., when they let me alone. I had a right to shoot the fellow, but I let him off easy, as much for your sake as because he was carryin' another man's money."

"That's not true!" she cried. "It was his own money, every cent of it,—hard-earned money, meant to pay off his debts; and I can say it because I helped him earn it, mowin' and reapin' beside him in the harvest-field, thrashin' beside him in the barn, eatin' at his table, and sleepin' under his roof. I gev him my word he was safe from you, but you've made me out a liar, with no more thought o' me than if I'd been a stranger or an enemy!"

"Come, Deb., don't get into your tantrums. Potter may be a decent fellow, as men go, for anything I know, but you're not beholden to him because he treated you like a Christian as you are. You seem to forgit that he tried to take my life,—that he's hardly yet giv' up huntin' me like a wild beast! Damn him, if the money was his, which I don't believe, it wouldn't square accounts between us. You think more o' his money than o' my life, you huzzy!"

"No I don't, Sandy!" she protested, "no I don't. You know me better'n that. What am I here for, to-night? Have I never helped you, and hid you, and tramped the country for you back and forth, by day and by night,—and for what? Not for money, but because I'm your wife, whether or not priest or 'squire has said it. I thought you cared for me, I did, indeed; I thought you might do one thing to please me!"

There was a quivering motion in the muscles of her hard face; her lips were drawn convulsively, with an expression which denoted weeping, although no tears came to her eyes.

"Don't be a fool!" Sandy exclaimed. "S'pose you have served me, isn't it somethin' to have a man to serve? What other husband is there for you in the world, than me,—the only man that isn't afeard o' your fist? You've done your duty by me, I'll allow, and so have I done mine by you!"

"Then," she begged, "do this one thing over and above your duty. Do it, Sandy, as a bit o' kindness to me, and put upon me what work you please, till I've made it up to you! You dunno what it is, maybe, to have one person in the world as shows a sort o' respect for you—that gives you his hand honestly, like a gentleman, and your full Chris'en name. It does good when a body's been banged about as I've been, and more used to curses than kind words, and not a friend to look after me if I was layin' at Death's door—and I don't say you wouldn't come, Sandy, but you can't. And there's no denyin' that he had the law on his side, and isn't more an enemy than any other man. Maybe he'd even be a friend in need, as far as he dared, if you'd only do it"—

"Do what? What in the Devil's name is the woman drivin' at?" yelled Sandy Flash.

"Give back the money; it's his'n, not Barton's,—I know it. Tell me where it is, and I'll manage the whole thing for you. It's got to be paid in a month or two, folks says, and they'll come on him for it, maybe take and sell his farm—sell th' only house, Sandy, where I git my rights, th' only house where I git a bit o' peace an' comfort! You wouldn't be that hard on me?"

The highwayman took another deep drink and rose to his feet. His face was stern and threatening. "I've had enough o' this foolery," he said. "Once and for all, Deb., don't you poke your nose into my affairs! Give back the money? Tell you where it is? Pay him for huntin' me down? I could take you by the hair and knock your head ag'in the wall, for them words!"

She arose also and confronted him. The convulsive twitching of her mouth ceased, and her face became as hard and defiant as his. "Sandy Flash, mark my words!" she exclaimed. "You're a-goin' the wrong way, when you stop takin' only from the Collectors and the proud rich men, and sparin' the poor. Instead o' doin' good to balance the bad, it'll soon be all bad, and you no better 'n a common thief! You needn't show your teeth; it's true, and I say it square to y'r face!"

She saw the cruel intensity of his anger, but did not flinch. They had had many previous quarrels, in which neither could claim any very great advantage over the other; but the highwayman was now in an impatient and exasperated mood, and she dared more than she suspected in defying him.

"You ——!" (the epithet he used cannot be written,) "will you stop your jaw, or shall I stop it for you? I'm your master, and I give you your orders, and the first order is, Not another word, now and never, about Potter or his money!"

He had never before outraged her by such a word, never before so brutally asserted his claim to her obedience. All the hot, indignant force of her fierce, coarse nature rose in resistance. She was thoroughly aroused and fearless. The moment had come, she felt, when the independence which had been her compensation amid all the hardships and wrongs of her life, was threatened,—when she must either preserve it by a desperate effort, or be trampled under foot by this man, whom she both loved and feared, and in that moment, hated.

"I'll not hold my jaw!" she cried, with flashing eyes. "Not even at your biddin', Sandy Flash! I'll not rest till I have the money out o' you; there's no law ag'inst stealin' from a thief!"

The answer was a swift, tremendous blow of the highwayman's fist, delivered between her eyes. She fell, and lay for a moment stunned, the blood streaming from her face. Then with a rapid movement, she seized the hunting-knife which lay beside the fire, and sprang to her feet.

The knife was raised in her right hand, and her impulse was to plunge it into his heart. But she could not avoid his eyes; they caught and held her own, as if by some diabolical fascination. He stood motionless, apparently awaiting the blow. Nothing in his face or attitude expressed fear; only all the power of the man seemed to be concentrated in his gaze, and to hold her back. The impulse once arrested, he knew, it would not return. The eyes of each were fixed on the other's, and several minutes of awful silence thus passed.

Finally, Deb. Smith slightly shuddered, as if with cold, her hand slowly fell, and without a word she turned away to wash her bloody face.

Sandy Flash grinned, took another drink of whiskey, resumed his seat before the fire, and then proceeded to fill his pipe. He lit and smoked it to the end, without turning his head, or seeming to pay the least attention to her movements. She, meanwhile, had stopped the flow of blood from her face, bound a rag around her forehead, and lighted her own pipe, without speaking. The highwayman first broke the silence.

"As I was a-sayin'," he remarked, in his ordinary tone, "we've got to look out for new holes, where the scent isn't so strong as about these. What do you think o' th' Octorara?"

"Where?" she asked. Her voice was hoarse and strange, but he took no notice of it, gazing steadily into the fire as he puffed out a huge cloud of smoke.

"Well, pretty well down," he said. "There's a big bit o' woodland, nigh onto two thousand acres, belongin' to somebody in Baltimore that doesn't look at it once't in ten years, and my thinkin' is, it'd be as safe as the Backwoods. I must go to—it's no difference where—to-morrow mornin', but I'll be back day after to-morrow night, and you needn't stir from here till I come. You've grub enough for that long, eh?"

"It'll do," she muttered.

"Then, that's enough. I must be off an hour before day, and I'm devilish fagged and sleepy, so here goes!"

With these words he rose, knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and stretched himself on the bed of leaves. She continued to smoke her pipe.

"Deb.," he said, five minutes afterwards, "I'm not sure o' wakin'. You look out for me,—do you hear?"

"I hear," she answered, in the same low, hoarse voice, without turning her head. In a short time Sandy Flash's deep breathing announced that he slept. Then she turned and looked at him with a grim, singular smile, as the wavering fire-light drew clear pictures of his face which the darkness as constantly wiped out again. By-and-by she noiselessly moved her seat nearer to the wall, leaned her head against the rough logs, and seemed to sleep. But, even if it were sleep, she was conscious of his least movement, and started into alert wakefulness, if he turned, muttered in dreams, or crooked a finger among the dead leaves. From time to time she rose, stole out of the cabin and looked at the sky. Thus the night passed away.

There was no sign of approaching dawn in the dull, overcast, snowy air; but a blind, animal instinct of time belonged to her nature, and about two hours before sunrise, she set about preparing a meal. When all was ready, she bent over Sandy Flash, seized him by the shoulder, and shook his eyes open.

"Time!" was all she said.

He sprang up, hastily devoured the bread and meat, and emptied the jug of its last remaining contents.

"Hark ye, Deb.," he exclaimed, when he had finished, "you may as well trudge over to the Turk's Head and fill this while I'm gone. We'll need all of it, and more, tomorrow night. Here's a dollar, to pay for't. Now I must be on the tramp, but you may look for me to-morrow, an hour after sun."

He examined his pistols, stuck them in his belt, threw his drover's cloak over his shoulders, and strode out of the cabin. She waited until the sound of his footsteps had died away in the cold, dreary gloom, and then threw herself upon the pallet which he had vacated. This time she slept soundly, until hours after the gray winter day had come up the sky.

Her eyes were nearly closed by the swollen flesh, and she laid handfuls of snow upon her face, to cool the inflamation. At first, her movements were uncertain, expressing a fierce conflict, a painful irresolution of feeling; she picked up the hunting-knife, looked at it with a ghastly smile, and then threw it from her. Suddenly, however, her features changed, and every trace of her former hesitation vanished. After hurriedly eating the fragments left from Sandy's breakfast, she issued from the cabin and took a straight and rapid course eastward, up and over the hill.

During the rest of that day and the greater part of the next, the cabin was deserted.

It was almost sunset, and not more than an hour before Sandy Flash's promised return, when Deb. Smith again made her appearance. Her face was pale, (except for the dark blotches around the eyes,) worn, and haggard; she seemed to have grown ten years older in the interval.

Her first care was to rekindle the fire and place the replenished jug in its accustomed place. Then she arranged and rearranged the rude blocks which served for seats, the few dishes and the articles of food on the shelf, and, when all had been done, paced back and forth along the narrow floor, as if pushed by some invisible, tormenting power.

Finally a whistle was heard, and in a minute afterwards Sandy Flash entered the door. The bright blaze of the hearth shone upon his bold, daring, triumphant face.

"That's right, Deb.," he said. "I'm dry and hungry, and here's a rabbit you can skin and set to broil in no time. Let's look at you, old gal! The devil!—I didn't mean to mark you like that. Well, bygones is bygones, and better times is a-comin'."

"Sandy!" she cried, with a sudden, appealing energy, "Sandy—once't more! Won't you do for me what I want o' you?"

His face darkened in an instant. "Deb!" was all the word he uttered, but she understood the tone. He took off his pistol-belt and laid it on the shelf. "Lay there, pets!" he said; "I won't want you to-night. A long tramp it was, and I'm glad it's over. Deb., I guess I've nigh tore off one o' my knee-buckles, comin' through the woods."

Placing his foot upon one of the logs, he bent down to examine the buckle. Quick as lightning, Deb., who was standing behind him, seized each of his arms, just above the elbows, with her powerful hands, and drew them towards each other upon his back. At the same time she uttered a shrill, wild cry,—a scream so strange and unearthly in its character that Sandy Flash's blood chilled to hear it.

"Curse you, Deb., what are you doing? Are you clean mad?" he ejaculated, struggling violently to free his arms.

"Which is strongest now?" she asked; "my arms, or your'n? I've got you, I'll hold you, and I'll only let go when I please!"

He swore and struggled, but he was powerless in her iron grip. In another minute the door of the cabin was suddenly burst open, and two armed men sprang upon him. More rapidly than the fact can be related, they snapped a pair of heavy steel handcuffs upon his wrists, pinioned his arms at his sides, and bound his knees together. Then, and not till then, Deb. Smith relaxed her hold.

Sandy Flash made one tremendous muscular effort, to test the strength of his bonds, and then stood motionless. His white teeth flashed between his parted lips, and there was a dull, hard glare in his eyes which told that though struck dumb with astonishment and impotent rage, he was still fearless, still unsubdued. Deb. Smith, behind him, leaned against the wall, pale and panting.

"A good night's work!" remarked Chaffey, the constable, as he possessed himself of the musket, pistol-belt, and hunting-knife. "I guess this pitcher won't go to the well any more."

"We'll see," Sandy exclaimed, with a sneer. "You've got me, not through any pluck o' your'n, but through black, underhanded treachery. You'd better double chain and handcuff me, or I may be too much for you yet!"

"I guess you'll do," said the constable, examining the cords by the light of a lantern which his assistant had in the mean time fetched from without. "I'll even untie your knees, for you've to walk over the hill to the next farm-house, where we'll find a wagon to carry you to Chester jail. I promise you more comfortable quarters than these, by daylight."

The constable then turned to Deb. Smith, who had neither moved nor spoken.

"You needn't come with us without you want to," he said. "You can get your share of the money at any time; but you must remember to be ready to appear and testify, when Court meets."

"Must I do that?" she gasped.

"Why, to be sure! It's a reg'lar part of the trial, and can't be left out, though there's enough to hang the fellow ten times over, without you."

The two unbound Sandy Flash's knees and placed themselves on each side of him, the constable holding a cocked pistol in his right hand.

"March is the word, is it?" said the highwayman. "Well, I'm ready. Potter was right, after all; he said there'd be a curse on the money, and there is; but I never guessed the curse'd come upon me through you, Deb!"

"Oh, Sandy!" she cried, starting forward, "you druv me to it! The curse was o' your own makin'—and I gev you a last chance to-night, but you throwed it from you!"

"Very well, Deb," he answered, "if I've got my curse, don't think you'll not have your'n! Go down to Chester and git your blood-money, and see what'll come of it, and what'll come to you!"

He turned towards her as he spoke, and the expression of his face seemed so frightful that she shuddered and covered her eyes. The next moment, the old cabin door creaked open, fell back with a crash, and she was alone.

She stared around at the dreary walls. The sound of their footsteps had died away, and only the winter night-wind wailed through the crannies of the hut. Accustomed as she was to solitary life and rudest shelter, and to the companionship of her superstitious fancies, she had never before felt such fearful loneliness, such overpowering dread. She heaped sticks upon the fire, sat down before it, and drank from the jug. Its mouth was still wet from his lips, and it seemed that she was already drinking down the commencement of the curse.

Her face worked, and hard, painful groans burst from her lips. She threw herself upon the floor and grovelled there, until the woman's relief which she had almost unlearned forced its forgotten way, through cramps and agonies, to her eyes. In the violent passion of her weeping and moaning, God saw and pitied, that night, the struggles of a dumb, ignorant, yet not wholly darkened nature.

Two hours afterwards she arose, sad, stern, and determined, packed together the things she had brought with her, quenched the fire (never again to be relighted) upon the hearth, and took her way, through cold and darkness, down the valley.



CHAPTER XXV.

TWO ATTEMPTS.

The news of Sandy Flash's capture ran like wildfire through the county. As the details became more correctly known, there was great rejoicing but greater surprise, for Deb. Smith's relation to the robber, though possibly surmised by a few, was unsuspected by the community at large. In spite of the service which she had rendered by betraying her paramour into the hands of justice, a bitter feeling of hostility towards her was developed among the people, and she was generally looked upon as an accomplice to Sandy Flash's crimes, who had turned upon him only when she had ceased to profit by them.

The public attention was thus suddenly drawn away from Gilbert Potter, and he was left to struggle, as he best might, against the difficulties entailed by his loss. He had corresponded with Mr. Trainer, the conveyancer in Chester, and had learned that the money still due must not only be forthcoming on the first of April, but that it probably could not be obtained there. The excitement for buying lands along the Alleghany, Ohio, and Beaver rivers, in western Pennsylvania, had seized upon the few capitalists of the place, and Gilbert's creditor had already been subjected to inconvenience and possible loss, as one result of the robbery. Mr. Trainer therefore suggested that he should make a new loan in his own neighborhood, where the spirit of speculation had not yet reached.

The advice was prudent and not unfriendly, although of a kind more easy to give than to carry into execution. Mark's money-belt had been restored, greatly against the will of the good-hearted fellow (who would have cheerfully lent Gilbert the whole amount had he possessed it), and there was enough grain yet to be threshed and sold, to yield something more than a hundred dollars; but this was all which Gilbert could count upon from his own resources. He might sell the wagon and one span of horses, reducing by their value the sum which he would be obliged to borrow; yet his hope of recovering the money in another year could only be realized by retaining them, to continue, from time to time, his occupation of hauling flour.

Although the sympathy felt for him was general and very hearty, it never took the practical form of an offer of assistance, and he was far too proud to accept that plan of relief which a farmer, whose barn had been struck by lightning and consumed, had adopted, the previous year,—going about the neighborhood with a subscription-list, and soliciting contributions. His nearest friends were as poor as, or poorer than, himself, and those able to aid him felt no call to tender their services.

Martha Deane knew of this approaching trouble, not from Gilbert's own lips, for she had seen him but once and very briefly since his return from the chase of Sandy Flash. It was her cousin Mark, who, having entered into an alliance, offensive and defensive, with her lover, betrayed (considering that the end sanctioned the means) the confidence reposed in him.

The thought that her own coming fortune lay idle, while Gilbert might be saved by the use of a twentieth part of it, gave Martha Deane no peace. The whole belonged to him prospectively, yet would probably be of less service when it should be legally her own to give, than the fragment which now would lift him above anxiety and humiliation. The money had been bequeathed to her by a maternal aunt, whose name she bore, and the provisions by which the bequest was accompanied, so light and reasonable be fore, now seemed harsh and unkind. The payment of the whole sum, or any part of it, she saw, could not be anticipated. But she imagined there must be a way to obtain a loan of the necessary amount, with the bequest as security. With her ignorance of business matters, she felt the need of counsel in this emergency; yet her father was her guardian, and there seemed to be no one else to whom she could properly apply. Not Gilbert, for she fancied he might reject the assistance she designed, and therefore she meant to pay the debt before it became due, without his knowledge; nor Mark, nor Farmer Fairthorn. Betsy Lavender, when appealed to, shook her head, and remarked,—

"Lord bless you, child! a wuss snarl than ever. I'm gittin' a bit skeary, when you talk o' law and money matters, and that's the fact. Not that I find fault with your wishin' to do it, but the contrary, and there might be ways, as you say, only I'm not lawyer enough to find 'em, and as to advisin' where I don't see my way clear, Defend me from it!"

Thus thrown back upon herself, Martha was forced to take the alternative which she would gladly have avoided, and from which, indeed, she hoped nothing,—an appeal to her father. Gilbert Potter's name had not again been mentioned between them. She, for her part, had striven to maintain her usual gentle, cheerful demeanor, and it is probable that Dr. Deane made a similar attempt; but he could not conceal a certain coldness and stiffness, which made an uncomfortable atmosphere in their little household.

"Well, Betsy," Martha said (they were in her room, upstairs), "Father has just come in from the stable, I see. Since there is no other way, I will go down and ask his advice."

"You don't mean it, child!" cried the spinster.

Martha left the room, without answer.

"She's got that from him, anyhow," Miss Betsy remarked, "and which o' the two is stubbornest, I couldn't undertake to say. If he's dead-set on the wrong side, why, she's jist as dead-set on the right side, and that makes a mortal difference. I don't see why I should be all of a trimble, that only sets here and waits, while she's stickin' her head into the lion's mouth; but so it is! Isn't about time for you to be doin' somethin', Betsy Lavender!"

Martha Deane entered the front sitting-room with a grave, deliberate step. The Doctor sat at his desk, with a pair of heavy silver-rimmed spectacles on his nose, looking over an antiquated "Materia Medica." His upper lip seemed to have become harder and thinner, at the expense of the under one, which pouted in a way that expressed vexation and ill-temper. He was, in fact, more annoyed than he would have confessed to any human being. Alfred Barton's visits had discontinued, and he could easily guess the reason. Moreover, a suspicion of Gilbert Potter's relation to his daughter was slowly beginning to permeate the neighborhood; and more than once, within the last few days, all his peculiar diplomacy had been required to parry a direct question. He foresaw that the subject would soon come to the notice of his elder brethren among the Friends, who felt self-privileged to rebuke and remonstrate, even in family matters of so delicate a nature.

It was useless, the Doctor knew, to attempt coercion with Martha. If any measure could succeed in averting the threatened shame, it must be kindly persuasion, coupled with a calm, dispassionate appeal to her understanding. The quiet, gentle way in which she had met his anger, he now saw, had left the advantage of the first encounter on her side. His male nature and long habit of rule made an equal self-control very difficult, on his part, and he resolved to postpone a recurrence to the subject until he should feel able to meet his daughter with her own weapons. Probably some reflection of the kind then occupied his mind, in spite of the "Materia Medica" before him.

"Father," said Martha, seating herself with a bit of sewing in her hand, "I want to ask thee a few questions about business matters."

The Doctor looked at her. "Well, thee's taking a new turn," he remarked. "Is it anything very important?"

"Very important," she answered; "it's about my own fortune."

"I thought thee understood, Martha, that that matter was all fixed and settled, until thee's twenty-five, unless—unless"—

Here the Doctor hesitated. He did not wish to introduce the sore subject of his daughter's marriage.

"I know what thee means, father. Unless I should sooner marry, with thy consent. But I do not expect to marry now, and therefore do not ask thy permission. What I want to know is, whether I could not obtain a loan of a small sum of money, on the security of the legacy?"

"That depends on circumstances," said the Doctor, slowly, and after a long pause, during which he endeavored to guess his daughter's design. "It might be,—yes, it might be; but, Martha, surely thee doesn't want for money? Why should thee borrow?"

"Couldn't thee suppose, father, that I need it for some good purpose? I've always had plenty, it is true; but I don't think thee can say I ever squandered it foolishly or thoughtlessly. This is a case where I wish to make an investment,—a permanent investment."

"Ah, indeed? I always fancied thee cared less for money than a prudent woman ought. How much might this investment be?"

"About six hundred dollars," she answered.

"Six hundred!" exclaimed the Doctor; "that's a large sum to venture, a large sum! Since thee can only raise it with my help, thee'll certainly admit my right, as thy legal guardian, if not as thy father, to ask where, how, and on what security the money will be invested?"

Martha hesitated only long enough to reflect that her father's assertion was probably true, and without his aid she could do nothing. "Father," she then said, "I am the security."

"I don't understand thee, child."

"I mean that my whole legacy will be responsible to the lender for its repayment in three years from this time. The security I ask, I have in advance; it is the happiness of my life!"

"Martha! thee doesn't mean to say that thee would"—

Dr. Deane could get no further. Martha, with a sorrowful half-smile, took up his word.

"Yes, father, I would. Lest thee should not have understood me right, I repeat that I would, and will, lift the mortgage on Gilbert Potter's farm. He has been very unfortunate, and there is a call for help which nobody heeds as he deserves. If I give it now, I simply give a part in advance. The whole will be given afterwards."

Dr. Deane's face grew white, and his lip trembled, in spite of himself. It was a minute or two before he ventured to say, in a tolerably steady voice,—

"Thee still sets up thy right (as thee calls it) against mine, but mine is older built and will stand. To help thee to this money would only be to encourage thy wicked fancy for the man. Of course, I can't do it; I wonder thee should expect it of me. I wonder, indeed, thee should think of taking as a husband one who borrows money of thee almost as soon as he has spoken his mind!"

For an instant Martha Deane's eyes flashed. "Father!" she cried, "it is not so! Gilbert doesn't even know my desire to help him. I must ask this of thee, to speak no evil of him in my hearing. It would only give me unnecessary pain, not shake my faith in his honesty and goodness. I see thee will not assist me, and so I must endeavor to find whether the thing cannot be done without thy assistance. In three years more the legacy will be mine, I shall go to Chester, and consult a lawyer, whether my own note for that time could not be accepted!"

"I can spare thee the trouble," the Doctor said. "In case of thy death before the three years are out, who is to pay the note? Half the money falls to me, and half to thy uncle Richard. Thy aunt Martha was wise. It truly seems as if she had foreseen just what has happened, and meant to baulk thy present rashness. Thee may go to Chester, and welcome, if thee doubts my word; but unless thee can give positive assurance that thee will be alive in three years' time, I don't know of any one foolish enough to advance thee money."

The Doctor's words were cruel enough; he might have spared his triumphant, mocking smile. Martha's heart sank within her, as she recognized her utter helplessness. Not yet, however, would she give up the sweet hope of bringing aid; for Gilbert's sake she would make another appeal.

"I won't charge thee, father, with being intentionally unkind. It would almost seem, from thy words, that thee is rather glad than otherwise, because my life is uncertain. If I should die, would thee not care enough for my memory to pay a debt, the incurring of which brought me peace and happiness during life? Then, surely, thee would forgive; thy heart is not so hard as thee would have me believe; thee wishes me happiness, I cannot doubt, but thinks it will come in thy way, not in mine. Is it not possible to grant me this—only this—and leave everything else to time?"

Dr. Deane was touched and softened by his daughter's words. Perhaps he might even have yielded to her entreaty at once, had not a harsh and selfish condition presented itself in a very tempting form to his mind.

"Martha," he said, "I fancy that thee looks upon this matter of the loan in the light of a duty, and will allow that thy motives may be weighty to thy own mind. I ask thee to calm thyself, and consider things clearly. If I grant thy request, I do so against my own judgment, yea,—since it concerns thy interests,—against my own conscience. This is not a thing to be lightly done, and if I should yield, I might reasonably expect some little sacrifice of present inclination—yet all for thy future good—on thy part. I would cheerfully borrow the six hundred dollars for thee, or make it up from my own means, if need be, to know that the prospect of thy disgrace was averted. Thee sees no disgrace, I am aware, and pity that it is so; but if thy feeling for the young man is entirely pure and unselfish, it should be enough to know that thee had saved him from ruin, without considering thyself bound to him for life."

The Doctor sharply watched his daughter's face while he spoke. She looked up, at first, with an eager, wondering light of hope in her eyes,—a light that soon died away, and gave place to a cloudy, troubled expression. Then the blood rose to her cheeks, and her lips assumed the clear, firm curve which always reflected the decisions of her mind.

"Father," she said, "I see thee has learned how to tempt, as well as threaten. For the sake of doing a present good, thee would have me bind myself to do a life-long injustice. Thee would have me take an external duty to balance a violation of the most sacred conscience of my heart. How little thee knows me! It is not alone that I am necessary to Gilbert Potter's happiness, but also that he is necessary to mine. Perhaps it is the will of Heaven that so great a bounty should not come to me too easily, and I must bear, without murmuring, that my own father is set against me. Thee may try me, if thee desires, for the coming three years, but I can tell thee as well, now, what the end will be. Why not rather tempt me by offering the money Gilbert needs, on the condition of my giving up the rest of the legacy to thee? That would be a temptation, I confess."

"No!" he exclaimed, with rising exasperation, "if thee has hardened thy heart against all my counsels for thy good, I will at least keep my own conscience free. I will not help thee by so much as the moving of a finger. All I can do is, to pray that thy stubborn mind may be bent, and gradually led back to the Light!"

He put away the book, took his cane and broad-brimmed hat, and turned to leave the room. Martha rose, with a sad but resolute face, and went up-stairs to her chamber.

Miss Betsy Lavender, when she learned all that had been said, on both sides, was thrown into a state of great agitation and perplexity of mind. She stared at Martha Deane, without seeming to see her, and muttered from time to time such fragmentary phrases as,—"If I was right-down sure," or, "It'd only be another weepon tried and throwed away, at the wust."

"What are you thinking of, Betsy?" Martha finally asked.

"Thinkin' of? Well, I can't rightly tell you. It's a bit o' knowledge that come in my way, once't upon a time, never meanin' to make use of it in all my born days, and I wouldn't now, only for your two sakes; not that it concerns you a mite; but never mind, there's ten thousand ways o' workin' on men's minds, and I can't do no more than try my way."

Thereupon Miss Lavender arose, and would have descended to the encounter at once, had not Martha wisely entreated her to wait a day or two, until the irritation arising from her own interview had had time to subside in her father's mind.

"It's puttin' me on nettles, now that I mean fast and firm to do it; but you're quite right, Martha," the spinster said.

Three or four days afterwards she judged the proper time had arrived, and boldly entered the Doctor's awful presence. "Doctor," she began, "I've come to have a little talk, and it's no use beatin' about the bush, plainness o' speech bein' one o' my ways; not that folks always thinks it a virtue, but oftentimes the contrary, and so may you, maybe; but when there's a worry in a house, it's better, whatsoever and whosoever, to have it come to a head than go on achin' and achin', like a blind bile!"

"H'm," snorted the Doctor, "I see what thee's driving at, and I may as well tell thee at once, that if thee comes to me from Martha, I've heard enough from her, and more than enough."

"More 'n enough," repeated Miss Lavender. "But you're wrong. I come neither from Martha, nor yet from Gilbert Potter; but I've been thinkin' that you and me, bein' old,—in a measure, that is,—and not so direckly concerned, might talk the thing over betwixt and between us, and maybe come to a better understandin' for both sides."

Dr. Deane was not altogether disinclined to accept this proposition. Although Miss Lavender sometimes annoyed him, as she rightly conjectured, by her plainness of speech, he had great respect for her shrewdness and her practical wisdom. If he could but even partially win her to his views, she would be a most valuable ally.

"Then say thy say, Betsy," he assented.

"Thy say, Betsy. Well, first and foremost, I guess we may look upon Alf. Barton's courtin' o' Martha as broke off for good, the fact bein' that he never wanted to have her, as he's told me since with his own mouth."

"What?" Dr. Deane exclaimed.

"With his own mouth." Miss Lavender repeated. "And as to his reasons for lettin' on, I don't know 'em. Maybe you can guess 'em, as you seem to ha' had everything cut and dried betwixt and between you; but that's neither here nor there—Alf. Barton bein' out o' the way, why, the coast's clear, and so Gilbert's case is to be considered by itself; and let's come to the p'int, namely, what you've got ag'in him?"

"I wonder thee can ask, Betsy! He's poor, he's base-born, without position or influence in the neighborhood,—in no way a husband for Martha Deane! If her head's turned because he has been robbed, and marvellously saved, and talked about, I suppose I must wait till she comes to her right senses."

"I rather expect," Miss Lavender gravely remarked, "that they were bespoke before all that happened, and it's not a case o' suddent fancy, but somethin' bred in the bone and not to be cured by plasters. We won't talk o' that now, but come back to Gilbert Potter, and I dunno as you're quite right in any way about his bein's and doin's. With that farm o' his'n, he can't be called poor, and I shouldn't wonder, though I can't give no proofs, but never mind, wait awhile and you'll see, that he's not base-born, after all; and as for respect in the neighborhood, there's not a man more respected nor looked up to,—so the last p'int's settled, and we'll take the t' other two; and I s'pose you mean his farm isn't enough?"

"Thee's right," Dr. Deane said. "As Martha's guardian, I am bound to watch over her interests, and every prudent man will agree with me that her husband ought at least to be as well off as herself."

"Well, all I've got to say, is, it's lucky for you that Naomi Blake didn't think as you do, when she married you. What's sass for the goose ought to be sass for the gander (meanin' you and Gilbert), and every prudent man will agree with me."

This was a home-thrust, which Dr. Deane was not able to parry. Miss Lavender had full knowledge whereof she affirmed, and the Doctor knew it.

"I admit that there might be other advantages," he said, rather pompously, covering his annoyance with a pinch of snuff,—"advantages which partly balance the want of property. Perhaps Naomi Blake thought so too. But here, I think, it would be hard for thee to find such. Or does thee mean that the man's disgraceful birth is a recommendation?"

"Recommendation? No!" Miss Lavender curtly replied.

"We need go no further, then. Admitting thee's right in all other respects, here is cause enough for me. I put it to thee, as a sensible woman, whether I would not cover both myself and Martha with shame, by allowing her marriage with Gilbert Potter?"

Miss Lavender sat silently in her chair and appeared to meditate.

"Thee doesn't answer," the Doctor remarked, after a pause.

"I dunno how it come about," she said, lifting her head and fixing her dull eyes on vacancy; "I was thinkin' o' the time I was up at Strasburg, while your brother was livin', more 'n twenty year ago."

With all his habitual self-control and gravity of deportment, Dr. Deane could not repress a violent start of surprise. He darted a keen, fierce glance at Miss Betsy's face, but she was staring at the opposite wall, apparently unconscious of the effect of her words.

"I don't see what that has to do with Gilbert Potter," he presently said, collecting himself with an effort.

"Nor I, neither," Miss Lavender absently replied, "only it happened that I knowed Eliza Little,—her that used to live at the Gap, you know,—and just afore she died, that fall the fever was so bad, and I nussin' her, and not another soul awake in the house, she told me a secret about your brother's boy, and I must say few men would ha' acted as Henry done, and there's more 'n one mighty beholden to him."

Dr. Deane stretched out his hand as if he would close her mouth. His face was like fire, and a wild expression of fear and pain shot from his eyes.

"Betsy Lavender," he said, in a hollow voice, "thee is a terrible woman. Thee forces even the secrets of the dying from them, and brings up knowledge that should be hidden forever. What can all this avail thee? Why does thee threaten me with appearances, that cannot now be explained, all the witnesses being dead?"

"Witnesses bein' dead," she repeated. "Are you sorry for that?"

He stared at her in silent consternation.

"Doctor," she said, turning towards him for the first time, "there's no livin' soul that knows, except you and me, and if I seem hard, I'm no harder than the knowledge in your own heart. What's the difference, in the sight o' the Lord, between the one that has a bad name and the one that has a good name? Come, you set yourself up for a Chris'en, and so I ask you whether you're the one that ought to fling the first stone; whether repentance—and there's that, of course, for you a'n't a nateral bad man, Doctor, but rather the contrary—oughtn't to be showed in deeds, to be wuth much! You're set ag'in Martha, and your pride's touched, which I can't say as I wonder at, all folks havin' pride, me among the rest, not that I've much to be proud of, Goodness knows; but never mind, don't you talk about Gilbert Potter in that style, leastways before me!"

During this speech, Dr. Deane had time to reflect. Although aghast at the unexpected revelation, he had not wholly lost his cunning. It was easy to perceive what Miss Lavender intended to do with the weapon in her hands, and his aim was to render it powerless.

"Betsy," he said, "there's one thing thee won't deny,—that, if there was a fault, (which I don't allow), it has been expiated. To make known thy suspicions would bring sorrow and trouble upon two persons for whom thee professes to feel some attachment; if thee could prove what thee thinks, it would be a still greater misfortune for them than for me. They are young, and my time is nearly spent. We all have serious burdens which we must bear alone, and thee mustn't forget that the same consideration for the opinion of men which keeps thee silent, keeps me from consenting to Martha's marriage with Gilbert Potter. We are bound alike."

"We're not!" she cried, rising from her seat. "But I see it's no use to talk any more, now. Perhaps since you know that there's a window in you, and me lookin' in, you'll try and keep th' inside o' your house in better order. Whether I'll act accordin' to my knowledge or not, depends on how things turns out, and so sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, or however it goes!"

With these words she left the room, though foiled, not entirely hopeless.

"It's like buttin' over an old stone-wall," she said to Martha. "The first hit with a rammer seems to come back onto you, and jars y'r own bones, and may be the next, and the next; and then little stones git out o' place, and then the wall shakes, and comes down,—and so we've been a-doin'. I guess I made a crack to-day, but we'll see."



CHAPTER XXVI.

THE LAST OF SANDY FLASH.

The winter crept on, February was drawing to a close, and still Gilbert Potter had not ascertained whence the money was to be drawn which would relieve him from embarrassment. The few applications he had made were failures; some of the persons really had no money to invest, and others were too cautious to trust a man who, as everybody knew, had been unfortunate. In five weeks more the sum must be made up, or the mortgage would be foreclosed.

Both Mary Potter and her son, in this emergency, seemed to have adopted, by accident or sympathy, the same policy towards each other,—to cheer and encourage, in every possible way. Gilbert carefully concealed his humiliation, on returning home from an unsuccessful appeal for a loan, and his mother veiled her renewed sinking of the heart, as she heard of his failure, under a cheerful hope of final success, which she did not feel. Both had, in fact, one great consolation to fall back upon,—she that he had been mercifully saved to her, he that he was beloved by a noble woman.

All the grain that could be spared and sold placed but little more than a hundred dollars in Gilbert's hands, and he began seriously to consider whether he should not be obliged to sell his wagon and team. He had been offered a hundred and fifty dollars, (a very large sum, in those days,) for Roger, but he would as soon have sold his own right arm. Not even to save the farm would he have parted with the faithful animal. Mark Deane persisted in increasing his seventy-five dollars to a hundred, and forcing the loan upon his friend; so one third of the amount was secure, and there was still hope for the rest.

It is not precisely true that there had been no offer of assistance. There was one, which Gilbert half-suspected had been instigated by Betsy Lavender. On a Saturday afternoon, as he visited Kennett Square to have Roger's fore-feet shod, he encountered Alfred Barton at the blacksmith's shop, on the same errand.

"The man I wanted to see!" cried the latter, as Gilbert dismounted. "Ferris was in Chester last week, and he saw Chaffey, the constable, you know, that helped catch Sandy; and Chaffey told him he was sure, from something Sandy let fall, that Deb. Smith had betrayed him out of revenge, because he robbed you. I want to know how it all hangs together."

Gilbert suddenly recalled Deb. Smith's words, on the day after his escape from the inundation, and a suspicion of the truth entered his mind for the first time.

"It must have been so!" he exclaimed. "She has been a better friend to me than many people of better name."

Barton noticed the bitterness of the remark, and possibly drew his own inference from it. He looked annoyed for a moment, but presently beckoned Gilbert to one side, and said,—

"I don't know whether you've given up your foolish suspicions about me and Sandy; but the trial comes off next week, and you'll have to be there as a witness, of course, and can satisfy yourself, if you please, that my explanation was nothing but the truth. I've not felt so jolly in twenty years, as when I heard that the fellow was really in the jug!"

"I told you I believed your words," Gilbert answered, "and that settles the matter. Perhaps I shall find out how Sandy learned what you said to me that evening, on the back-porch of the Unicorn, and if so, I am bound to let you know it."

"See here, Gilbert!" Barton resumed. "Folks say you must borrow the money you lost, or the mortgage on your farm will be foreclosed. Is that so? and how much money might it be, altogether, if you don't mind telling?"

"Not so much, if those who have it to lend, had a little faith in me,—some four or five hundred dollars."

"That ought to be got, without trouble," said Barton. "If I had it by me, I'd lend it to you in a minute; but you know I borrowed from Ferris myself, and all o' my own is so tied up that I couldn't move it without the old man getting on my track. I'll tell you what I'll do, though; I'll indorse your note for a year, if it can be kept a matter between ourselves and the lender. On account of the old man, you understand."

The offer was evidently made in good faith, and Gilbert hesitated, reluctant to accept it, and yet unwilling to reject it in a manner that might seem unfriendly.

"Barton," he said at last, "I've never yet failed to meet a money obligation. All my debts, except this last, have been paid on the day I promised, and it seems a little hard that my own name, alone, shouldn't be good for as much as I need. Old Fairthorn would give me his indorsement, but I won't ask for it; and I mean no offence when I say that I'd rather get along without yours, if I can. It's kind in you to make the offer, and to show that I'm not ungrateful, I'll beg you to look round among your rich friends and help me to find the loan."

"You're a mighty independent, fellow, Gilbert, but I can't say as I blame you for it. Yes, I'll look round in a few days, and maybe I'll stumble on the right man by the time I see you again."

When Gilbert returned home, he communicated this slight prospect of relief to his mother. "Perhaps I am a little too proud," he said; "but you've always taught me, mother, to be beholden to no man, if I could help it; and I should feel more uneasy under an obligation to Barton than to most other men. You know I must go to Chester in a few days, and must wait till I'm called to testify. There will then be time to look around, and perhaps Mr. Trainer may help me yet."

"You're right, boy!" Mary Potter cried, with flashing eyes. "Keep your pride; it's not of the mean kind! Don't ask for or take any man's indorsement!"

Two days before the time when Gilbert was summoned to Chester, Deb. Smith made her appearance at the farm. She entered the barn early one morning, with a bundle in her hand, and dispatched Sam, whom she found in the stables, to summon his master. She looked old, weather-beaten, and haggard, and her defiant show of strength was gone.

In betraying Sandy Flash into the hands of justice, she had acted from a fierce impulse, without reflecting upon the inevitable consequences of the step. Perhaps she did not suspect that she was also betraying herself, and more than confirming all the worst rumors in regard to her character. In the universal execration which followed the knowledge of her lawless connection with Sandy Flash, and her presumed complicity in his crimes, the merit of her service to the county was lost. The popular mind, knowing nothing of her temptations, struggles, and sufferings, was harsh, cold, and cruel, and she felt the weight of its verdict as never before. A few persons of her own ignorant class, who admired her strength and courage in their coarse way, advised her to hide until the first fury of the storm should be blown over. Thus she exaggerated the danger, and even felt uncertain of her reception by the very man for whose sake she had done the deed and accepted the curse.

Gilbert, however, when he saw her worn, anxious face, the eyes, like those of a dumb animal, lifted to his with an appeal which she knew not how to speak, felt a pang of compassionate sympathy.

"Deborah!" he said, "you don't look well; come into the house and warm yourself!"

"No!" she cried, "I won't darken your door till you've heerd what I've got to say. Go 'way, Sam; I want to speak to Mr. Gilbert, alone."

Gilbert made a sign, and Sam sprang down the ladder, to the stables under the threshing-floor.

"Mayhap you've heerd already," she said. "A blotch on a body's name spreads fast and far. Mine was black enough before, God knows, but they've blackened it more."

"If all I hear is true," Gilbert exclaimed, "you've blackened it for my sake, Deborah. I'm afraid you thought I blamed you, in some way, for not preventing my loss; but I'm sure you did what you could to save me from it!"

"Ay, lad, that I did! But the devil seemed to ha' got into him. Awful words passed between us, and then—the devil got into me, and—you know what follered. He wouldn't believe the money was your'n, or I don't think he'd ha' took it; he wasn't a bad man at heart, Sandy wasn't, only stubborn at the wrong times, and brung it onto himself by that. But you know what folks says about me?"

"I don't care what they say, Deborah!" Gilbert cried. "I know that you are a true and faithful friend to me, and I've not had so many such in my life that I'm likely to forget what you've tried to do!"

Her hard, melancholy face became at once eager and tender. She stepped forward, put her hand on Gilbert's arm, and said, in a hoarse, earnest, excited whisper,—

"Then maybe you'll take it? I was almost afeard to ax you,—I thought you might push me away, like the rest of 'em; but you'll take it, and that'll seem like a liftin' of the curse! You won't mind how it was got, will you? I had to git it in that way, because no other was left to me!"

"What do you mean, Deborah?"

"The money, Mr. Gilbert! They allowed me half, though the constables was for thirds, but the Judge said I'd arned the full half,—God knows, ten thousand times wouldn't pay me!—and I've got it here, tied up safe. It's your'n, you know, and maybe there a'n't quite enough, but as fur as it goes; and I'll work out the amount o' the rest, from time to time, if you'll let me come onto your place!"

Gilbert was powerfully and yet painfully moved. He forgot his detestation of the relation in which Deb. Smith had stood to the highwayman, in his gratitude for her devotion to himself. He felt an invincible repugnance towards accepting her share of the reward, even as a loan; it was "blood-money," and to touch it in any way was to be stained with its color; yet how should he put aside her kindness without inflicting pain upon her rude nature, made sensitive at last by abuse, persecution, and remorse?

His face spoke in advance of his lips, and she read its language with wonderful quickness.

"Ah!" she cried, "I mistrusted how it'd be; you don't want to say it right out, but I'll say it for you! You think the money'd bring you no luck,—maybe a downright curse,—and how can I say it won't? Ha'n't it cursed me? Sandy said it would, even as your'n follered him. What's it good for, then? It burns my hands, and them that's clean, won't touch it. There, you damned devil's-bait,—my arm's sore, and my heart's sore, wi' the weight o' you!"

With these words she flung the cloth, with its bunch of hard silver coins, upon the threshing-floor. It clashed like the sound of chains. Gilbert saw that she was sorely hurt. Tears of disappointment, which she vainly strove to hold back, rose to her eyes, as she grimly folded her arms, and facing him, said,—

"Now, what am I to do?"

"Stay here for the present, Deborah," he answered.

"Eh? A'n't I summonsed? The job I undertook isn't done yet; the wust part's to come! Maybe they'll let me off from puttin' the rope round his neck, but I a'n't sure o' that!"

"Then come to me afterwards," he said, gently, striving to allay her fierce, self-accusing mood. "Remember that you always have a home and a shelter with me, whenever you need them. And I'll take your money," he added, picking it up from the floor,—"take it in trust for you, until the time shall come when you will be willing to use it. Now go in to my mother."

The woman was softened and consoled by his words. But she still hesitated.

"Maybe she won't—she won't"—

"She will!" Gilbert exclaimed. "But if you doubt, wait here until I come back."

Mary Potter earnestly approved of his decision, to take charge of the money, without making use of it. A strong, semi-superstitious influence had so entwined itself with her fate, that she even shrank from help, unless it came in an obviously pure and honorable form. She measured the fulness of her coming justification by the strict integrity of the means whereby she sought to deserve it. Deb. Smith, in her new light, was no welcome guest, and with all her coarse male strength, she was still woman enough to guess the fact; but Mary Potter resolved to think only that her son had been served and befriended. Keeping that service steadily before her eyes, she was able to take the outcast's hand, to give her shelter and food, and, better still, to soothe her with that sweet, unobtrusive consolation which only a woman can bestow,—which steals by avenues of benevolent cunning into a nature that would repel a direct expression of sympathy.

The next morning, however, Deb. Smith left the house, saying to Gilbert,—"You won't see me ag'in, without it may be in Court, till after all's over; and then I may have to ask you to hide me for awhile. Don't mind what I've said; I've no larnin', and can't always make out the rights o' things,—and sometimes it seems there's two Sandys, a good 'un and a bad 'un, and meanin' to punish one, I've ruined 'em both!"

When Gilbert reached Chester, the trial was just about to commence. The little old town on the Delaware was crowded with curious strangers, not only from all parts of the county, but even from Philadelphia and the opposite New-Jersey shore. Every one who had been summoned to testify was beset by an inquisitive circle, and none more so than himself. The Court-house was packed to suffocation; and the Sheriff, heavily armed, could with difficulty force a way through the mass. When the clanking of the prisoner's irons was heard, all the pushing, struggling, murmuring sounds ceased until the redoubtable highwayman stood in the dock.

He looked around the Court-room with his usual defiant air, and no one observed any change of expression, as his eyes passed rapidly over Deb. Smith's face, or Gilbert Potter's. His hard red complexion was already beginning to fade in confinement, and his thick hair, formerly close-cropped for the convenience of disguises, had grown out in not ungraceful locks. He was decidedly a handsome man, and his bearing seemed to show that he was conscious of the fact.

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